We've seen the current iteration of the Volvo C30 R-Design before, but with the model ending production in December, it seems appropriate to take another look at what has been one of my favorite hatchbacks. Volvo must also want to give the C30 an appropriate sendoff, because it has furnished us with a Polestar limited edition -- one of only 250 examples -- that features more power than the standard C30 R-Design, an eye-catching color scheme, and all of the tech and comfort bells and whistles available on the model.
Even fully loaded, the C30 is Volvo's lowest-tech car, offering almost none of the automaker's advanced driver aid technology and features. That's fine, because the little hatchback's practical design deals with most driver awareness issues the old-fashioned way: with great sight lines.
I'm a huge fan of the all-glass rear hatch, which offers fantastic rear visibility. No rearview camera option is available on the C30, but I can't imagine that a camera would be much of an improvement over this massive glass portal. On the other hand, the hatchback's opening is a bit small for loading large items given the amount of cargo room available with the second-row seats folded flat. I could lay my hipster fixie bike in the Volvo without removing its seat or front wheel, but getting the bicycle through the small opening took a lot of fiddling and finagling -- just invest in a roof rack, cyclists.
Wraparound side windows and smallish C-pillars also give the compact C30 excellent 360-degree visibility, which is great because blind-spot monitoring is also not available. Good visibility, when combined with the short nose-to-tail length, makes the C30 hatchback remarkably easy to park, well suited for threading through heavy traffic, and perfect for tight quarters in the city. Ford's Focus Titanium, with its optional automated parking, might be even better suited for drivers uncomfortable with parallel parking, but the C30 offers better visibility without electronic aids, for drivers who keep their head on a swivel.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I love this little Polestar Volvo. Its broad-shouldered design looks muscular and sporty from almost every angle. Meanwhile, the optional R-Design aero kit -- while perhaps a bit bulbous -- gives the C30 a hunkered-down and lowered appearance without a slammed suspension. The C30 is handsome, but it's the Polestar limited edition's Rebel Blue paint and matte black wheels that turned heads and elicited thumbs-ups from other drivers on the road. If you like the idea of a "sleeper" car, you'll want to skip this special edition.
The two-tone leather seats were comfortable and power-adjustable, with three memory settings for the driver's seat. However, they aren't as well bolstered as they could be and didn't move out of the way very quickly when passengers needed to get into the rear seats.
Speaking of the rear seats, I'm not a fan of the two-bucket-seats-with-fixed-armrest setup back there, which limits the C30 to a four-seater configuration when there is space for five. I know because I managed to cram three pretty girls back there during a night on the town -- don't ask how. The ladies were, by the way, also very complimentary of the C30's exterior design and color scheme.
Engine and transmission
Our C30 is a T5 model, which means that it is powered by a turbocharged, 2.5-liter gasoline engine with an inline, five-cylinder configuration. Normally, this engine outputs 227 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, but we also had the limited-edition R-Design/Polestar package, which bumps output to 250 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque by way of increased turbocharger boost pressure and engine recalibrations. Speculation around the Web points to there actually being more torque on tap than Volvo is claiming, but I've got no way to confirm or deny this rumor.
That power and torque flows through a six-speed manual transmission on its way to the front wheel. The throw on the leather and aluminum shifter is precise and smooth, but also ridiculously long. If you're not careful, you will hit center-stack buttons with your knuckles. I actually had to move my seat forward a few inches from my standard driving position to reach sixth gear without stretching.
Power delivery is good, with a meaty torque curve that delivers most of its grunt in that very usable midrange of the RPM range. The car feels powerful around town and on the highway. When the road gets twisty it supplies plenty of forward thrust for scooting out of bends.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with a combined average of 24 mpg. I averaged about 20 mpg on a combined cycle mixed in highway cruising -- including an approximately 2,500-foot climb up and down the mountainous Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles -- and a weekend putting around LA itself on surface roads and in the area's world-famous traffic.
Comfortably warm hatch
The T5 R-Design package brings an array of suspension upgrades, including stiffer springs, a 10-millimeter-lower ride, unique shock absorbers, bushings, and antiroll bars. The Polestar special edition doesn't mess with that formula, which is unfortunate because this more powerful model could use a bit of sharpening up in the handling department. As is, the C30 is responsive, yes, but from my point of view it's too compliant. It's got decent grip, but it still understeers more than I'd like it to. For a hot hatch, I got a lot of comments from passengers about how comfortable it was.
But I don't want a compliant ride from this car, I want fun, an edge, a proper hot hatch. This is more of a lukewarm hatch. Polestar is supposed to be to Volvo what the M badge is to BMW, what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz. I should be impressed by its quickness and nimbleness. If compromises are made, they should be in the name of performance, not comfort.
Not that the C30 T5 R-Design handles poorly. You probably won't be disappointed with the C30's handling prowess, that is, if you never bother to test-drive it against the Ford Focus ST or Mazdaspeed3. The C30 just doesn't feel as sharp as either of these vehicles; it offers less feedback, requires larger input, and exhibits more understeer than either of its hot-hatch cousins. On the other hand, it gives a considerably smoother ride, as well, with less road noise and less harshness over bumps.
As a starting point for modification or as a casual autocrossing machine, the Polestar C30 shows promise. Grippier tires with a wider contact patch than the stock 205-width all-season rubber would be a good first step in the right direction.